Eric D. Snider

Burn After Reading

Movie Review

Burn After Reading

by Eric D. Snider

Grade: B-

Released: September 12, 2008


Directed by:


Joel and Ethan Coen have never made a bad movie, and "Burn After Reading" certainly is not one. It is, however, a lesser Coen work, a negligible dark comedy that will be remembered alongside, say, "The Ladykillers" rather than with, say, "The Big Lebowski."

It's played like a spoof of techno-thrillers (complete with "24"-style musical score and teletype captions telling us the locations), only instead of smart people outfoxing each other, we have a parade of idiotic jerks screwing up their lives through greed and sheer stupidity.

Our first jerk is Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), a bitter, prissy CIA operative who has just been fired for, among other things, having a drinking problem. ("You're a Mormon!" he yells at his supervisor. "Next to you we all have a drinking problem!") Returning to his cold, humorless wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), in Georgetown, he decides to write a memoir (which he pronounces "mem-wuh") as a means of exorcising his CIA demons and having the last laugh on the Agency.

Meanwhile, at a local gym called Hardbodies, there is a trainer named Linda (Frances McDormand) who wants a tummy tuck, liposuction, and minor plastic surgery to make herself feel younger and more fit. Like all of Frances McDormand's characters, Linda is immediately likable and sweet. Unlike most of them, Linda soon turns on us: When a CD containing what she believes is top-secret CIA information is found in the gym's locker room, she is more than happy to blackmail its owner, Osborne Cox, for the money she needs for the operations.

Her partner in this is Chad (Brad Pitt), a dippy, peppy fellow trainer whose hairstyle and I.Q. are stuck in the eighties. Chad has no malice in him; what he has is childlike excitement at getting involved in a caper, and his enthusiasm for the game of blackmail far exceeds his ability to pull it off. Osborne Cox, for his part, cannot believe how dumb his extortionists are, and he's not afraid to tell them, in loud, profane terms -- Osborne swears at a highly advanced level -- just how much they will regret this.

Meanwhile, Osborne's wife has been sleeping with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a mid-level government agent with several personality quirks (a number of food allergies, an interest in hardwood flooring, etc.) and a wife of his own. Harry likes to meet women over the Internet and have sex with them. The mousy, self-conscious Linda, placing an ad on the very site favored by Harry, soon becomes one of his paramours. Back at Hardbodies, her boss, Ted (Richard Jenkins), pines quietly for her.

As in most Coen comedies (and even some of the dramas), the plot grows more convoluted and absurd while still staying generally within the bounds of reality -- i.e., the effects of the characters' actions are what you would reasonable expect them to be in these circumstances. J.K. Simmons, in a brief role as a CIA higher-up, summarizes the goofiness of the situation to an underling: "Get back to me when it makes sense." It never does -- or, rather, even when it does make sense, it's still ridiculous.

Detractors have complained that the Coens rarely show any sympathy for their characters. Here, for the first time, I tend to agree. The only characters who get killed onscreen are the nice ones, and while I understand that Linda desperately wants her surgeries, I just don't buy her being so immediately willing to sell state secrets to the Russians. There is also the matter of Brad Pitt's performance, which is funny but shallow, like a caricature, while Clooney, McDormand and (especially) Malkovich are funny but grounded.

Quibbles aside, a "lesser" Coen movie is like a "lesser" Pixar movie: still better than most of its competition. "Burn After Reading" is gleefully dark and frequently hilarious. The Coens obviously just wanted to make a silly movie with some of their friends, and the zeal that comes from such an undertaking is all on the screen. If Joel and Ethan want to toss off a frivolous lark every now and then between their major works, that's fine with me.

Grade: B-

Rated R, pervasive harsh profanity, some violence, brief strong sexuality and sexual vulgarity

1 hr., 34 min.

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This item has 8 comments

  1. Kyle M says:

    What a great spoof on those idiotic techno-political-spy thriller movies. It had all the elements of the most convoluted Tom Clancy plot, but unlike in those types of films (I'm looking at you, Syriana), when the crowd was bewildered we at least knew the Coens intended it that way, and the characters on the screen were just as confused as we were.

    How much would you have loved Vantage Point if, halfway through, Lawrence Fishburne had looked at the camera, shrugged, and said "I have no idea what's going on. Actually, I have a feeling nothing's going on at all."

  2. Amp says:

    I doubt I would have loved "Vantage Point" more if, halfway through, Lawrence Fishburne had confessed to the camera he didn't understand what was going on. I guess I would have been really, really confused as to why he interrupted a movie he wasn't acting in to begin with. 'How did he get into the filming?' I would have asked myself. Does Lawrence Fishburne regularly interrupt movies in which he otherwise does not play any part to let a future audience know his take on the movie thus far? Was it a secret Hollywood rule that Lawrence Fishburne is allowed to add his comments to any movie he chooses, anytime, and his cameos may not be cut out? Then I would have been too perturbed by the Lawrence Fishburne mystery to concentrate on the movie at hand.

  3. steve says:

    amp funny!

  4. Spencer says:

    The Coen's once again have made a movie that allows the audience to try to come to grips with unusual actions taken by the film's characters. Thankfully, at its core, Burn After Reading is a bubbling dark comedy, so don't worry about a thing. This is "shock and awe" film making and I love it! Why do the Coen's do it? Because nobody else does. They've make a comedy/thriller and stayed tongue and cheek true to a spy/intrigue CIA yarn. Who does this in Hollywood??? When you see this film, at times you may be the only person laughing in the theatre (like me). That's because we're not quite wrapped tight enough and enjoy a cinematical change-up every once in a while. Thank you J and E. Thanks for everything from Miller's Crossing to Raising Arizona. Two severed thumbs up!!

    PS: I'm building a special project in my basement.

  5. Rob D. says:

    I think the critics, including Eric were a little hard on this film. I know Eric and most other critics liked it, but they didn't love it. I really loved it! Is it as good as some of the best Coen movies...........I'm not really sure yet as it has to sink in, but it's definitely close.

  6. milkshake says:

    its seems lot like Fargo but without the serious tragic parts and the nice characters.

    John Malkovich as a furious bitter man completely down on his luck is delicious, and so is his cold evil wife, Tilda Swinton. I just wished the George Clooney character had more scheming to do - he is far-better utilised as a slick lawer or a con type than a dim-bulb skirt-chaser. (I liked the flash of absolute terror in his eyes when he realizes things have gone very wrong). Brad Pitt is is inconsistently silly - you could see he is far more inteligent than the well-hydrated dude he is playing but his character was entertaining.

    Overall, I think B- is too harsh.

  7. Eve says:

    I have to say, living in DC made this movie so much more enjoyable. The Coen brothers captured the essence of living in "Hollywood for Ugly People" as some people have called DC. Clooney's obsessive need to "go for a run" reminds me of every overachieving idiot on Capitol Hill. It's the brilliant little details that make their movies such fun to watch.

  8. Robert Lee says:

    Now I want to see a movie about Laurence Fishburne just jumping into various other motion pictures and making pithy comments about them.

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